The Book of Unknown Americans


Cristina Henríquez

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The Book of Unknown Americans: Chapter 21: José Mercado Summary & Analysis

José and his wife Ynez were both born in Puerto Rico in the 1950s. He joined the navy shortly after they were married and travelled all over—he was injured in Bosnia, but he came home, and says that arriving home safely is “all any soldier cares about.” Though José prefers the artistic and high-minded “things in life,” pressure from his father, who “believed a man should work hard with his hands,” led José to enlist. His father was overjoyed when he became a Navy man, but Ynez was upset. The two of them had no children, and Ynez was always alone during José’s deployments. He began sending her letters when he was away, and the letters “saved” both of them and their marriage. A great lover of poetry, José can no longer see very well to read, and he now listens to books on CD or allows Ynez to read poetry to him. He quotes an American poet who writes about the beauty and horror of life, ultimately concluding that “’life blows you apart in her arms.’”
José’s story is the story of the American dream falling apart in a different way. After serving in the military in order to impress his macho father, José suffered pain and injuries both emotional and physical. His sensitive soul was unprepared for the toll that the Navy would take on him, and he now, in his old age, finds refuge in poetry which speaks to his struggle, and which acknowledges the difficulty, futility, and unpredictability of life.
The Unknown and The American Dream Theme Icon
Longing Theme Icon
Isolation vs. Community Theme Icon
Futility, Chance, and Loss Theme Icon